Agronomy Library > Soil Conservation

Zero-till: Experience a Move to Less and Less Disturbance - Rick Dobush, Vegreville, AB
Author: Helen McMenamin
Date Created: February 18, 2004
Last Reviewed: February 18, 2004

 When he first started direct seeding 12 years ago, Rick Dobush used a high disturbance shovel opener with a tow-behind coil packer. That system had lots of benefits, but he sees more and more advantages to the progressively lower disturbance systems he's used since.
Now, he sees direct seeding as a way to improve his land.
"We saw instant benefits with direct seeding," says the Vegreville farmer.
"The first was that I could put all the crop in by myself. I didn't need a hired man and I didn't need a second big tractor. The second benefit we saw was an increase in yields because of moisture conservation.
"We did a test, our first year, because my father wasn't keen on the switch to direct seeding. We took a half section and banded fertilizer on half of it before we seeded it. The other quarter we direct seeded. There was a 6-bushel difference in the two crops – a worthwhile gain over our average 40- or 45-bushel crops. That's a pretty good return for saving a day's work and a tank of fuel. And, instead of needing two tractors and a hired man, I could do everything myself.
"We still have some neighbors who farm the traditional way, cultivating everything. They have the best-looking crops at first, and they look good if we have moisture. If it gets dry later in the summer, those crops don't last. There's often no direct link between the way a crop looks at first and the way it looks at combining."
After using his first airseeder for about five years Dobush wanted better control of his seed and fertilizer placement and on-row packing in a unit that would allow him to use anhydrous ammonia. He found all these things in a Concord drill with Anderson boots.
"We got everything we were looking for," he says. "We got good placement and seed-fertilizer separation. The control of seeding depth and the packing action gave us a marked improvement in stands and uniformity of our crops."
The Anderson boots place seed in paired rows. Ammonia is placed below granular fertilizer between the seed rows. Fertilizer rows are 12 inches apart so there's about 6 inches of undisturbed soil between rows.
Dobush was fairly happy with his airseeder. The paired rows filled in and the crop canopy closed very quickly. The undisturbed soil between rows meant weed seeds weren't being reincorporated and mulch could build up. The system also worked well when he had to swath crops – the dense crop rows held even a heavy crop well above the ground, allowing good air circulation.
After five or six years though, Dobush wanted even less disturbance. He wanted to leave more of his stubble standing to protect the new crop. His new drill is a Conserva-Pak.

Rick and his Conserva Pak drill

"The seed placement is excellent," he says. "I can get 99.9 percent of the seed exactly where I want it. Each seed-tube has its own packer wheel, so we got excellent germination and good stands. And, with the 12-inch row spacing, the drill has lower draft and we were able to go to bigger footage without increasing our horsepower."
The Conserva-Pak seed-cart has impressed Dobush. It's a completely different system from any of the other units on the market. The cart has four tanks that feed product directly into seed tubes rather than through a manifold. Two cameras monitor the seed cups for each tank so it's easy to see any problems.
"It's well-designed, with farmers in mind," Dobush says. "It's truly simple, efficient and very user friendly. This is our first crop seeded with it, but I'm very satisfied with the whole system."
After being reluctant to abandon tillage, Dobush's father, Bill, is now an advocate for direct seeding. "My neighbor keeps tilling his land to aerate the soil," says the elder Dobush. "My house is full of dirt off his fields. He's wearing out iron, wasting fuel, eroding his field, and he's losing moisture. If he must fallow, I wish he'd use chemicals.
"When we tilled, we never could get rid of wild oats and quack grass. With zero-till, we pretty much got rid of both of them. In a matter of three years or so, the pressure from those weeds was much less. Our crops are improving year by year. But, it is hard to pick rocks."
Dobush aims for any premium he can find in all the crops he grows. He likes Osprey winter wheat for the milling premium and for the delivery opportunities.
"It is a hassle to organize everything for seeding in harvest season," he says. "But, once you're in the system, it's not that big a problem. And, you have a little less pressure in seeding, spraying and harvest seasons.
“The earlier harvest window is a big benefit and because it's earlier, the crop often escapes pest and disease risks. Because winter wheat gets going well before spring-seeded crops, it's more competitive with weeds.”
Moisture management is the real key to successful farming today, according to Dobush. "It seems we're always short of moisture these days," he says. "This
spring, we had good moisture, but when I was a kid we had a lot more snow and flooded fields. I haven't seen that for years.
“We disturb the soil as little as possible. That retains the moisture in the soil and we’re not burning up organic matter to release all that carbon into the atmosphere. We spread all our straw to build up organic matter. We're always working to build a mulch layer to protect the soil from erosion and to reduce evaporation. I know that makes a huge difference to crops. They can hang on longer when we get a dry spell.

Rick examines his soil

"We're in partnership with our land. It gives me my living and I'll do whatever I can to improve it. Direct seeding increases organic matter, improves the moisture absorption and storage capacity and the yield potential. It may not be dollars and cents, but organic matter is like money in the bank, it's an investment in your land. Over the long run it pays big dividends."